Strip away the millions, the titles, the credits, and what’s left is a dancer.
Nigel Lythgoe, executive producer of “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” Officer of the British Empire and philanthropist, remains, at his essence, a hoofer. Lythgoe feels the music and needs nothing more than the rhythm and a floor on which to express it. Lythgoe feels the music and needs nothing more than the rhythm and a floor on which to express it.
He is unabashedly thrilled about receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 11:30 a.m. July 9, a ceremony that was postponed twice because of COVID. The live ceremony will be at 6258 Hollywood Blvd.
“When you think of a dockworker’s son achieving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame …” he trails off momentarily as he considers how remarkable his path has been. Then, Lythgoe quickly returns to producer mode with an idea on how to improve matters.
“I guess I am going to get a little television on my star,” he says. “I would have much preferred a pair of tap shoes or ballet shoes.”
Comparisons are inevitable between Lythgoe and “Billy Elliot,” the movie and stage musical about a dockworker’s son who wants to become a dancer. Lythgoe, though, was luckier than that character. Billy’s father was embarrassed by his ballet-loving son; Lythgoe’s was proud. So were Lythgoe’s pals, he adds, once “we all figured out the best-looking girls were at dance school.”
Lythgoe reflected on his life over the course of two lengthy interviews — the first, on the eve of Valentine’s Day 2020, when COVID was making news but not yet declared a pandemic. Then, he was preparing to have a pacemaker replaced. “It all worked out fine, otherwise, I would not be talking with you,” he says, 15 months later.
Lythgoe spent the lockdown working on his golf game, pitching a show about the birth of R&B and readying a new series, “So You Think You Can Fight” for streamer Triller. (The highly anticipated return of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” is still to be determined; the last season wrapped up with a live finale in September 2019, almost two years ago.)
The format of “So You Think You Can Fight” will be familiar to fans of his shows. In this case, “we are going to take young fighters who believe they can fight, train them up, see the training, interview them — I have got some celebrities as well as champions — and then put them in the ring,” he explains.
Lythgoe understands the visceral connection between boxers and dancers. “There is a kinship between boxing and dancing, and a lot of it has to do with control of your body,” he says.
And that Lythgoe has. He continues to push his body because, as any former dancer knows, there’s no such thing as a former dancer.
“Who has neck surgery and two days later gets on a jet to go on an audition?” asks “So You Think You Can Dance” judge Mary Murphy. “It is shocking. He will have a heart attack, and he’s back up and away he goes.”
Independently, Lythgoe’s friends all mention his boundless energy, advocacy for dance and humor. That quick wit is evident when discussing this latest honor.
“They asked me where I would like my star,” Lythgoe says. “And I said on top of Simon Cowell’s.”
Told this, Cowell laughs. “That is very funny; typical Nigel,” he says.
Cowell and Lythgoe met more than 20 years ago when Lythgoe wanted Cowell to be a judge on the U.K. version of “Popstars,” which aired on ITV in 2001. A reality series following the formation of a modern pop-music group, it was short-lived in the U.K., but was a part of a bigger franchise that spanned countries from New Zealand to Ukraine and even got a U.S. version on the former WB network.
“At the last moment, I backed out because I didn’t want to be a judge on TV shows,” Cowell recalls. “And it worked out fine. About a year later, we were working on ‘Pop Idol.’ He was absolutely fearless.”
By the time they met, Lythgoe had been working in television for decades. He came to it, naturally, as a dancer. Yet, as Lythgoe notes, he switched early to choreography. As with so much of his career, there was no grand plan.
“Choreography wasn’t really a decision,” he says. “I always wanted to be a singing and dancing West End star. I got into ‘The Young Generation’ on the BBC in 1968.”
Two years later, when the show hired a new choreographer, Lythgoe was asked to assist. As on “So You Think You Can Dance” decades later, hoofers had to learn new routines weekly. That proved too much for the lead choreographer.
“The door opened and I stepped through it, which has happened my entire career,” he says.
While choreographing new numbers, he jotted down camera angles, too. “I was visualizing through the lens,” Lythgoe recalls. “And I would hand over my notes to the producers and director. The BBC then sent me on a directors’ course.”
As critical of himself as he is of contestants, Lythgoe admits he was “not a great choreographer.” What he possessed, though, was a keen sense of how the action unfolded on screen. He also proved to be a natural at bringing people together and keeping track of the many facets of production. As Murphy puts it, “he is kind of a multitasker on steroids.
Those abilities led to helming more variety shows. “I thought if I were producing it, I wanted to direct it, and that led to being given big shows,” Lythgoe says.
He also brought the uniquely British Christmas tradition of panto to Los Angeles.
In doing these shows, he met Queen Elizabeth. He also helped found BritWeek, a nonprofit that celebrates links in the arts between Southern California and the U.K. Noticing the dearth of dance programs for kids in America, Lythgoe resolved to change that.
Malissa Shriver, president of Turnaround Arts, which brings art into low-performing schools, says Lythgoe was among the group’s original volunteers. She recalls his first question: “What do you need?”
Lythgoe drives himself hours to judge middle-school talent shows. “He really, really coaches these kids, and he has very high expectations,” Shriver says. And, she adds, they rise to meet them. “Little children living in unimaginable, extreme poverty, he treats them as artists.”
Yet, the 71-year-old is not quite ready for canonization.
“He brought a very acerbic, honest, non-sugar-coated version of what would become the talent show judge” to TV, says Rob Wade, president, alternative entertainment and specials, Fox Entertainment. “He was the original no-holds-barred judge, and he got quite notorious in the U.K. He was called Nasty Nigel.”
Lythgoe chuckles about that moniker acquired during “Popstars.” “You sang all the right notes but put them in the wrong order,” he told one singer. To another, who gained weight over the holidays, he remarked, “Christmas is gone, and the goose is still fat.”
“She rushed off crying to bed, and the cameraman zoomed in on a box of chocolates on the side of the bed,” he recalls. “Nasty Nigel was born. It obviously inspired Cowell and Simon Fuller because then Simon Fuller created ‘Pop Idol’ using Simon Cowell as Nasty Simon. That, of course, became ‘American Idol’ and gave me opportunities to come out here.”
Once here, Lythgoe extended opportunities to others; he knows what it’s like to harbor a dream but not know how to achieve it.
“Nigel is an artist and has an understanding of artists in a way that is unusual for producers,” Fuller says. “He speaks from the heart. He is from Liverpool, that northern Liverpool Scouse. They are charming as hell, but they tell you the truth.”
People sense that. Contestants confided in him as if no one else were watching or listening.
In New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, hopefuls auditioning for “So You Think You Can Dance” talked about dance as their sole refuge.
“It all led to, ‘dance saved my life,’ and Nigel and I said we should do something about this and what grew out of it was Dizzy Feet,” says Adam Shankman, director and “So You Think You Can Dance” judge.
The Dizzy Feet Foundation is a nonprofit that sought to support, improve and increase access to dance education in the United States. It eventually became the American Dance Movement, which funds dance education in low-income communities. Lythgoe and Shankman lobbied Congress to designate the third Saturday in September as National Dance Day.
Although Lythgoe has achieved so much, Shankman considers his friend “actually rather simple.” It is Lythgoe’s passions that drive him, he notes. Those passions are “family and dance, and every decision he makes is basically borne of those two loves.”
Another ambassador for dance and Lythgoe’s co-founder of the Los Angeles Dance Festival, Debbie Allen, recalls a fun-filled escapade after taping one night: “We had been judging the show in Vegas,” she says. “We had a couple of shots of tequila. The dancers were not cutting it. I got up there with a go-go dancer and he joined me, and it was hilarious.”
These days, though, Lythgoe doesn’t dance much. “My ego is too big to get up and dance because I would just let myself down badly and I dance like crap nowadays. I do it secretly with friends after a few drinks. I love it to death.”
Considering the honors dance has brought him, it’s a mutual love affair. Lythgoe acknowledges being “richly rewarded” for his efforts, including being nominated for 12 Emmys and now the star on Hollywood Boulevard.
“I am just grateful that other dancers will look at this as well and say, ‘If he can bloody well do it, so can I,’” Lythgoe says.